Haley Barbour, Mississippi’s governor, is interviewed in the conservative Weekly Standard and his remarks there reveal much about how white racism operates. The profile and interview with Barbour is long, and there’s a lot to take objection to in there.
Perhaps the one thing that people are pulling out as most offensive is Barbour’s defense of the segregationist era Conservative Citizens’ Council (the CCC instead of the KKK, get it?) and his description of how it operated in his hometown of Yazoo City, MS. Here’s the passage that’s lighting up the blogosophere and the mainstream news outlets:
…Yazoo City was perhaps the only municipality in Mississippi that managed to integrate the schools without violence. I asked Haley Barbour why he thought that was so.
“Because the business community wouldn’t stand for it,” he said. “You heard of the Citizens’ Councils? Up north they think it was like the KKK. Where I come from it was an organization of town leaders. In Yazoo City they passed a resolution that said anybody who started a chapter of the Klan would get their ass run out of town. If you had a job, you’d lose it. If you had a store, they’d see nobody shopped there. We didn’t have a problem with the Klan in Yazoo City.”
Most of the reactions from bloggers calls out Barbour for defending white supremacists (e.g., the CCC) and they’re right. But, this analysis of Barbour’s remarks misses part of how white racism works. In fact, the Citizens’ Council did see themselves as ‘better than’ the KKK. While Barbour’s absolutely wrong that the Citizens’ Council was just “an organization of town leaders,” in fact, they were as committed to racial inequality as any robe-wearing Klansman. What’s true is that there were divisions among whites during the civil rights struggle. Barbour reveals more here about his class standing that perhaps he intends to, but it the Citizens’ Council was the refuge of upper-middle class racists while the KKK drew more from the working class. This move – distinguishing the ‘good (supposedly) non-racist whites’ from the ‘bad (obviously) racist ones’ is always the way that upper-middle class whites let themselves off the hook when it comes to racism. It was true in 1954, and it’s true today. (This good whites vs. bad whites game is something sociologist Matthew Hughey has documented in his research and written about here.)
The fact that upper-middle class whites like Barbour thought the KKK was unseemly in their overt displays of racism doesn’t mean that the Citizens’ Council embraced the end of segregation. This is clear in another part of the Weekly Standard profile. When recalling a visit to Yazoo City by Dr. Martin Luther King, Barbour offers this account:
“I remember Martin Luther King came to town, in ’62. He spoke out at the old fairground and it was full of people, black and white.” […] I don’t really remember. The truth is, we couldn’t hear very well. We were sort of out there on the periphery. “We just sat on our cars, watching the girls, talking, doing what boys do. We paid more attention to the girls than to King,” he added.
Barbour gives us another textbook example of how white racism works. First, it’s clear from this anecdote that Barbour didn’t see the speech by King as any that was interesting or relevant to his life. And, second, there’s the positive view of himself in the rear view mirror. Barbour’s patting himself on the back here for even attending this speech, while at the same time minimizing the importance of King, his words, and the civil rights movement as a whole. And, you know, throwing in a little gratuitous sexism just for fun. This sort of positive, retrospective labeling of white involvement in the civil rights movement is a key feature of the white racial frame in the post-civil rights era. For a glimpse of this in popular culture, take a look at the Gene Hackman and Wilem Dafoe roles of white FBI agents in the Hollywood film, “Mississippi Burning.” Uhm, it didn’t happen like that (e.g., SL Brinson, “The Myth of White Superiority in Mississippi Burning,” Southern Communication Journal, 1995). When whites – especially upper middle class whites – look back on the civil rights era (or, slavery, or the Holocaust) they like to imagine themselves as the hero in that story. I’m sorry white people, but you just do not look good in the story of the civil rights movement, or lynching, or slavery, no matter how much you try to re-imagine history. That goes for you, too, Haley Barbour.
Barbour offers us yet another lesson on how white racism works. When recalling the atrocities of white people do all you can to minimize. Here’s Barbour on how he recalls the civil rights struggle in Yazoo City:
“I just don’t remember it as being that bad.”
Yeah, well, you wouldn’t. This is classic white racism. Horrible years of grueling oppression? Ah, get over it. One of the white supremacist sites I looked at in Cyber Racism makes a similar argument about slavery – a supposedly ‘humane institution’ that slaves ‘loved and wanted to return to’ after emancipation.
This would be comical (on a par with Privilege Denying Dude) if it weren’t for the fact that Barbour is a governor with aspirations for high office. We don’t need someone like this leading the country, but he does offer a good object lesson in white racism, upper-middle class flavored.